Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano – Marc-André Hamelin

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Alkan
Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op.39 – 8-10: Concerto for Solo Piano
Troisième recueil de chants, Op.65

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Concerto recorded 9 & 10 February 2006 in Potton Hall, Suffolk; Chants recorded 20 December 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, London


Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: January 2008
CD No: HYPERION CDA67569
Duration: 68 minutes

 

 

A single etude (Opus 27) is called ‘Le chemin de fer’ and is probably the earliest piece inspired by the railway. The French website linked below has many of Alkan’s scores available for download.

The first movement of the Concerto here recorded, Allegro assai, is huge. It lasts about half an hour and makes enormous demands on the pianist. In G sharp minor, it begins with a bold statement as an ‘orchestral tutti’; the ‘solo’ enters after about three minutes, and reminds the listener of the first subject with a number of different treatments. Modulations to B major and back via E minor lead to a chorale, followed by triumphant transposition to A flat when the first themes are repeated before a dazzling close.

The second movement Adagio begins in a quiet, relaxed way, reminiscent of Chopin’s writing, but the more adventurous and startling modulations soon let one know who is at the helm. Hints of a funeral march with its drum beats then turn to a more peaceful mood, repeating the first theme, followed by more drums and thunder until all dies away at the close, when the listener is surprised by one vicious stab. After a Hungarian-sounding motif, the finale, Allegretto alla barbaresca, sounds as though the music has come from a Cairo bazaar and, indeed, the inspiration is from the Barbary Coast, where French archaeologists were making significant discoveries at the time. Saint-Saëns was similarly inspired to include North African melodies in some of his works. Alkan’s Berber music will have surprised his listeners and its originality is still striking today. A scintillating passage of the sort so popular with audiences at the time follows, and the piece ends in F sharp with some of the most demanding passagework in the repertoire.

The Chants, of which there are five books – the Third is recorded here – were inspired by Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and are short pieces (averaging to three minutes each), any one of which, as Jeremy Nicholas in his excellent booklet note relates, could act as a wonderful encore. The first has rippling triplets; this is followed by pieces depicting goblins, a lullaby that is a canon, and a polonaise. ‘Horace et Lydie’ is composed to the pattern of an Ode by Horace, where Lydie replies to Horace in the same manner and number of verses and must try to cap what he has said. The last piece, ‘Barcarolle’, has some quite extraordinary moments with flattened sevenths and has been described by Ronald Smith (that now-deceased, great champion of Alkan’s music) as “a fascinating pre-echo of the Twenties.”

A performance of the Concerto for Solo Piano requires technique and stamina in huge doses. Marc-André Hamelin’s playing here and throughout is quite superb. He has a technique that leaves one breathless with admiration coupled with a musicianship that has earned him the reputation of being one of the finest pianists of our time. In the Concerto for Solo Piano, Alkan is not shy of using the extremes of the keyboard, and there are times it seems impossible to accept there is only one pianist playing.

Hyperion has recorded him very well on an excellently prepared Steinway, the piano not too close and in good, natural acoustics. This is truly a wonderful release.

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